Plus-size furniture grows with America's girth
It can be a bit delicate to ask a furniture shopper: "Oh, sir, um, maybe, ah, you'd like to see something a bit, hmmm, sturdier?"

We are, as a people, as a sitting-in-chairs public, big. Bigger than we ought to be, health authorities frequently tell us. And bigger than many standard chairs of years past were made to hold comfortably.

So the scale of furniture has increased over the last decade — to suit both the size of homes and the size of their occupants, said Max Shangle, professor and chairman of the furniture design department at Kendall College of Art and Design in Michigan.

Some plus-size furniture proudly flaunts its generous proportions, but in many cases, manufacturers and retailers rely on subtle marketing.

Shangle said he knew of a company that made a "wonderful" dining room table and chairs, but the chairs were a bit fragile. So the company added three other styles of seating, including a bench it said would suit families with children.

"In reality, the bench was for folks who wouldn't fit in the chair," Shangle said.

He also cited a popular "mother-daughter" chair, the chair-and-a-half advertised as a cozy spot for two people to sit. "I know full well the chair was also sold to folks for whom a single chair would be a little tight," he said.

Consider those inexpensive folding chairs parents often tote to their kids' soccer games, said Kevin McGrain, senior vice president and general brand manager of KingSize/BrylaneHome. His company did, and realized its customers could be left standing on the sidelines.

So it introduced the Plus Size Living Collection last year that includes a portable cloth chair that the company said can hold up to 800 pounds.

"The initial response was phenomenal," McGrain said. The chair has a much stronger construction than the typical $40 version — and hence a higher price tag, about $100.

"It's just like apparel," McGrain said. "They don't want to look or feel any different than the regular customer."

Through furniture, observers can track changes over time in human size, home size and fashions. Chairs no longer need to accommodate hoop skirts, for example, and seat heights have gone up as humans have grown taller, Shangle said.

Of all American adults age 20 to 74, about 46% were overweight or obese in 1960, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. By 2005-06, that number had risen to about 73% for Americans 20 or older.

The growth of our girth has prompted the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Assn. to revise its test load standards used in the industry to evaluate product safety and durability. The standard for general purpose office chairs is now 250 pounds, up from 220.

"What we have noticed is people wanting bigger, more comfy, cozy sofas," said Heather Neubaur, manager at the Room & Board store in Culver City, who emphasized that the demand was driven by all consumers, not just heavy people.

But Sal Alessandro, owner of Valley Leather Furniture in Encino, which makes custom couches and chairs priced from about $900 and up, said he has seen an increase in sales of furniture specifically for larger people.

"I have definitely sold more, because I use more of that heavy foam" — the sort of foam meant to keep from sinking under the weight of a person upward of 300 pounds, he said. Foams are classified by density and resilience; heavy foam has more substance and less air per cubic foot.

Cushioning is just one of the issues in making furniture for heavy customers. Unlike the stereotype of pratfalls, a heavy person isn't likely to collapse a couch or an easy chair.

"I have yet to have a wood frame break," said Denis Devlin, store manager at Munro's Fine Furniture in Costa Mesa. "The biggest concern is the strength of the cushioning."